Posted: October 28, 2008
ince Peter the Great, the question where Russia is going has vexed diplomats and observers. The Soviet interlude offered a moment of tragic clarity regarding Moscow's strategic objectives-characterized by expansion, fueled by Communism, and backed by massive military force. The Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 bred confusion and disappointment within Russia, but great hopes in Western Europe and the U.S. In the 1990s, many Russia experts and policymakers in the West assumed that the country was heading toward a future of liberal democracy and peaceful relations with its neighbors.
The war in Georgia served as a rude awakening. Instead of enjoying the wealth from its gas and oil resources and developing a modern, democratic state, Moscow sent armored divisions across the Caucasus. This, according to Edward Lucas, was to be expected. Russians always had other ideas about how and where to direct their country, and over the past several years Vladimir Putin skillfully, coldly started to turn those aspirations into reality. In his book The New Cold War, Lucas, a well-informed correspondent for The Economist, chronicles the development of this new Russia that few in Europe and the U.S. predicted or expected. Written well before the war in Georgia, this book, read now, is prescient, narrating the rise of Putin's Russia as well as the troubling insouciance of the West, which together are leading to a resurgent Russian power.
Lucas presents his argument clearly and with plenty of details: Russia "is reverting to Soviet behavior at home and abroad, and in its contemptuous disregard for Western norms." The evidence is manifold: a long list of murdered journalists, bellicose posturing toward the former Soviet republics, political and military support to many pariah (and anti-U.S.) regimes, tight state control of the energy market, and so on. Russia's military foray into Georgia (followed by a symbolic, but telling, naval exercise in the Caribbean with Venezuela) now leaves no doubt as to Russian intentions. Lucas's book aptly describes Russia's gradual emergence as a neo-tsarist, authoritarian state ruled by a small elite of former KGB agents.
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Russia's path has been clear for a while. It aims to restore some authority over its former empire, purge foreign (mainly Western) influence at home, gain leverage over Europe, and, above all, bring back that perceived greatness it enjoyed until 1991. At the same time, Putin and his courtiers are stuffing their private accounts with billions of dollars, and enjoying all the perks of quasi-regal power.
But the book is more than an account of Moscow's new ruling class and its strategic designs. What makes The New Cold War required reading after the Russo-Georgian war is its strong warning to the West not to be passive toward Moscow's aggressive foreign policy. As Lucas puts it, the West is "inattentive and complacent, partly due to greed and wishful thinking, and partly because of serious distractions elsewhere." The U.S. has certainly responded clearly and substantially to Russia's latest sally, shipping humanitarian aid to Georgia courtesy of the U.S. Navy and promising serious financial aid. Yet, there are voices in Europe, particularly in Italy these days, that are calling for a "strategic partnership" with Moscow, effectively sacrificing Georgia and other likely targets of Russian pressure. Though Lucas obviously does not address these current events, he considers such complaisance naïve at best, and at worst willfully indifferent to serious violations of human rights in Russia and the continued expansion of Russian control over its periphery (and possibly farther away).
How serious is Russia's ability to regain its former imperial glory? After all, Russia is a hollow military power. An almost nonexistent Georgian army was able to shoot down several Russian aircraft and damage a Russian ship—a clear sign that Moscow does not have a top-notch army and navy. Aware of this weakness, Lucas argues that we are unlikely to see Russian armored divisions rolling toward the Elbe River, or Russian submarines threatening shipping in the Atlantic. Instead, Russia will create security challenges on the periphery, for instance, by selling anti-aircraft systems to Syria or fast torpedoes to Iran, or by invading fragile, weak states such as Georgia. It will even bring back Cold War memories by sending a few ships and Blackjack supersonic bombers to Venezuela. But Russia's army is bloated and poorly managed, its navy in serious disrepair, and its strategic nuclear forces possibly vulnerable to a U.S. first strike. Military power will not bring back Russian grandeur.
Tight domestic control, internal popular support, and oil and gas money, combined with Western shortsightedness, may do the trick, however. First of all, Putin and his policies enjoy high levels of popular support—a fact that puzzles many Westerners. In part this is because under Putin, as Lucas explains, "so few have lost, and so many have gained." The few losers are unpopular oligarchs (e.g., Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos, now in a penal colony in Siberia), journalists (think of Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006), or politicians with liberal leanings (like Gary Kasparov, constantly harassed by the police). The many who have benefited now enjoy higher standards of living, freedom to travel abroad, and prospects for the future that are considerably better than under the Soviet regime.
Second, Putin has capitalized on nationalist feelings, stoking xenophobia and revanchist desires. His well-known statement that the demise of the USSR was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century shocked the West but earned wide approval in Russia. Similarly, as Lucas describes, Putin exhibits a strong tendency to reinterpret history by whitewashing Soviet crimes, while blaming the West for many of the problems Russia suffered in the '90s. Putin has even expressed admiration for Stalin—whom he compares to Bismarck—a leader forced to make tough choices but who succeeded in modernizing a country, not to mention defeating Hitler and "liberating" half of Europe.
But perhaps the most important factor in Russia's rejuvenation is her vast reserves of gas and oil. The author notes two clashing views of this wealth's significance. The West imagines that Russia is interested in selling as much of its resources as possible to maximize its wealth; business, in other words, trumps all other concerns and aspirations. The Kremlin, by contrast, argues Lucas, considers Russia's energy resources a political or strategic tool with which it can divide Europe and exercise enormous leverage over the weaker East European and Caucasian states. Its goal is to monopolize the supply of gas to Europe by controlling all pipelines linking Russian suppliers with European consumers. Even if some of these pipelines-such as the Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea, designed to link Russia with Western Europe and avoid Ukraine and Poland—are costly and inefficient, they would bring considerable benefits to Russia, which could, for instance, shut down Ukraine's gas supply without affecting deliveries to Germany. A future "Orange Revolution" could then be put under serious strain.
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If Russia's path is worrisome, Lucas thinks it even more worrisome that the West has neglected to forge a common strategy to deal with the threat. What should be done to counter Russia's belligerence? Lucas urges the West to present a united trans-Atlantic front, be firm in negotiations, protect strategic assets such as refineries and pipelines from Russian acquisitions, and, above all, recognize Moscow's aspirations and tactics for what they are. He is deeply pessimistic about Russia's chances to evolve into anything resembling a liberal democracy; in truth, Russia is turning into a sort of postmodern tsarist state with strong fascist overtones—a "fraudulent democracy" (or as the Kremlin calls it, a "sovereign democracy.")
The prospects for a more coherent Western strategy are, alas, dim. Europe's reliance on Russian natural gas weakens the resolve of European leaders to stand up to Moscow's neo-imperialism. It is telling that, in response to the war in Georgia, Washington sent the U.S. Navy to the Black Sea, followed by half a billion dollars in aid, while the E.U. debated whether civilian monitors should be dispatched to the region (pending Russia's approval) and promised less than ten million dollars in humanitarian aid. The divide is not only between Europe and the U.S., but within Europe—a deep and lasting divide. While Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was expressing support for Russia, the leaders of Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states were flying to Tbilisi to stand next to the Georgian president. Lucas's call for strategic unity is noble, but I doubt it will materialize.
There is also a deeper problem, one that Lucas does not address explicitly. Vast segments of Western society, including most policymakers and pundits, especially in Western Europe, are unable to envisage a return to a pre-1990, or a pre-1917, chess game in the region. In their view, the market and elite-managed international institutions such as the E.U. have taken over the mechanisms of international relations, and it is simply inconceivable that a state would be willing to pursue policies that sacrifice financial gain for the sake of strategic leverage or glory. As somebody told me a while ago in Italy, it is impossible to believe that Russia would shut down a gas pipeline merely to exert political pressure. The fact that Russia already had done so in the case of Ukraine, and that it is building pipelines that would allow it to do so with greater political impact in the future—and that it is willing to risk losing the confidence of foreign investors in order to restore militarily its influence over its neighbors—does nothing to shake this naïve faith. If reality contradicts the Western vision of a new world order, too bad for reality.
Are we doomed, then, to enter into another confrontation with Russia, a "new Cold War," as the title of the book implies? Some have criticized Lucas's argument as alarmist. After all, the Cold War was a global conflict, in which Moscow's goal was to defeat capitalism and extend Communist ideology. Today's Russia lacks such global aspirations and capabilities. Yet it is clear that a confrontation is taking place, of a different nature and scope, with the possibility of becoming violent. The Russo-Georgian war is a sign that Moscow has not abandoned her imperial ambitions and is willing to use violence to punish those who stand in her way. This is not the end but the beginning of a contest for influence over Eurasia, with consequences as serious as those in the past. The New Cold War is a much-needed book because it dismantles any naïve hope that the past few months were a surprising anomaly in the political trajectory of Russia.